Here is Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media available on free fulltext, for your perusal. (For me at least, it’s extreme fangirl drooling, though I’ve read this book already twice back in college, and I already own a copy.)

In Understanding Media, McLuhan summarized his thesis in the clause: “the medium is the message,” by which he meant that the real impact of each medium is best understood by examining the effect of the medium itself on the human individual and society as a whole. The “content” was in his mind less important than the effect of the medium itself on a person’s “sense ratios.” Each medium, as an extension of some aspect of the human body, has — in his analysis — the effect of distorting the mental balance, traumatizing each of us and society as a whole.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan classifies media as “hot” or “cool”:

“A “hot” medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. […] A cool medium like hieroglyphic or ideogrammic written characters has very different effects from the hot and explosive medium of the phonetic alphabet.”

McLuhan also took pains to describe the effect of media as comparable to a physical trauma:

“The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics. If the operations are needed, the inevitability of infecting the whole system during the operation has to be considered. For in operating on society with a new technology, it is not the incised area that is most effected. The area of impact and incision is numb. It is the entire system that is changed. The effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory. Each new impact shifts the ratios among all the senses.”

Culture shock was portrayed as a clash of “sense ratios”, with some cultures being for example more “tactile” while others are more “visual.”To illustrate the numbing effects of a medium, McLuhan cited this example from “The Ugly American”

“As a civilized UNESCO experiment, running water — with its lineal organization of pipes — was installed recently in some Indian villages. Soon the villagers requested that the pipes be removed, for it seemed to them that the whole social life of the village has been impoverished when it was no longer necessary for all to visit the communal well. To us the pipe is a convenience. We do not think of it as culture or as a product of literacy, any more than we think of literacy as changing our habits, our emotions, or our perceptions. To nonliterate people, it is perfectly obvious that the most commonplace conveniences represent total changes in culture.”

See, this illustrates the danger of being absorbed by media, becoming incapable of seeing their effect on our values and emotions, numbed to their effects in reaction to the trauma they cause. The danger is immense: the traumatic effect of media may go a long way to explaining dehumanization and social stratification.

In Understanding Media, ART is portrayed as the solution. McLuhan writes:

“The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious processes” .

In his analysis, artists are visionaries who can see and explore the effects of new media and report on their emotional, mental, and social effects.



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How Klassy got her groove back.

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